Life after Cristiano Ronaldo begins in earnest for Manchester United in the Community Shield at Wembley today.
United begin life after Ronaldo
The sulks and the step-overs, the diamond earrings and the golden goals, the prima donna and the premier player in the league: all are consigned to the past now. Life after Cristiano Ronaldo begins in earnest for Manchester United in the Community Shield at Wembley today.
How do you solve a problem like Cristiano? It is an issue for Manuel Pellegrini now. Sir Alex Ferguson could offer some pointers although, given his animosity towards Real Madrid, he probably won't. How do you solve the problems his sale created? Now that is more pertinent. Ronaldo's capacity to dominate means he leaves a void. He was top goalscorer, set-piece specialist, pin-up boy and global icon. He had a fully consummated love affair with the camera and the talent to garner attraction, regardless of looks or ego.
Ferguson, then, is wise not to charge any one player with replacing Ronaldo. His duties have been divided up - Antonio Valencia takes over on the right flank, Michael Owen dons the No 7 shirt, Wayne Roo-ney, perhaps reluctantly, has to accept star billing. The penalties and free-kicks may be allocated to other individuals altogether. Yet if the Ecuadorian Valencia may be, as a winger, the closest comparison, the burden falls principally on three players: Owen, Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov. Ronaldo's strike rate - 91 goals in his last three seasons at Old Trafford - coupled with the inevitable focus on potential scorers means they share the spotlight.
For those who regard Berbatov as United's costliest misfit, a dilettante on the major stage, and who think Owen is in terminal decline, his recruitment a desperate measure when others opted for Real, they are the unwanted successors to George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. Yet concentrate on Owen's record, containing more than 200 club goals and a further 40 for England, and focus on the exquisite skill that brought Berbatov comparisons with Eric Cantona and the potential is evident. The finisher, the creator and the talisman: that doesn't sound so bad.
Rooney is the member of the strike trio whose importance goes unquestioned. After finishing last season on the left wing, it is symbolic he has a central role again: no one, surely, is more central to Ferguson's plans. His was the first name to echo around Old Trafford in the only home pre-season friendly, against Valencia, his the name sang longest and loudest. The people spoke, anointing Ronaldo's most unselfish courtier the new King of the Stretford End.
His immediate opponent today was tempted to renounce his throne at Stamford Bridge. John Terry stays, despite his flirtation with Manchester City. That, coupled with Carlo Ancelotti's appointment, probably influenced Ferguson's thinking when he suggested Chelsea would be United's major rivals this season. "Ancelotti will play the Milan way," the United manager suggested. That proved effective enough in the San Siro in the Champions League semi-final of 2007, as he knows to his cost. "The Milan way" will, Ferguson feels, be more effective than Luiz Felipe Scolari's approach.
He said: "Ancelotti is a European coach. He has won the Champions League twice and got to another final. He has won titles. He was a great player. He won't have the same problems as Scolari. They will play differently from the team which Guus Hiddink managed but I don't think any of Ancelotti's teams have lacked flair. "At AC Milan look at the players they had, like Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Kaka. He has been at one of the best clubs in Europe and Chelsea will benefit from that."
They are no strangers to silverware, but a trophy would nevertheless have significance for Ancelotti. Of his three recruits, Yuri Zhirkov is the likeliest to get a debut. The Italian has made the decisions to incorporate a midfield diamond and to pair Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka as a strike duo. They will face a defence deprived of the injured Nemanja Vidic and will face Ben Foster in the United goal. Edwin van der Sar, who is out with a broken finger, saved three penalties out of three from Chelsea in the shoot-out in the corresponding fixture two years ago. Penalties, however, provide United with another reminder of the stuttering, straight run-up, the strange technique and scoring record of Cristiano Ronaldo.
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